Panama's government said Monday it was formally investigating a complaint that executives for President Donald Trump's family hotel business were illegally occupying a 70-story luxury Trump hotel amid a management dispute.
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The Public Ministry said it was investigating whether there was any "punishable conduct" in the matter at the Trump International Hotel in Panama, and that it intended to ask for more information from both sides.
The dispute has brought armed guards on the property, allegations of improperly shredding documents and a pitched fight for control over a room filled with computer servers. Employees acting at the direction of Trump's hotel business retained physical control over the property, but the hotel's owners now control at least some of the hotel's bank accounts.
Monday's announcement comes in response to a tense standoff between the hotel's owners and Trump's executives, who were hired to run the hotel by the building's developer, many years before Trump was elected U.S. president. Hotel owners have been seeking to dump Trump's brand and management team since October over allegations of poor financial performance and financial misconduct. Led by Orestes Fintiklis, a Miami-based private equity investor who runs Ithaca Capital, the owners voted to fire Trump's management company last year.
Trump Hotels disputed its termination and a related claim by Ithaca for damages, and has refused to leave the Panama property. The dispute is now being litigated in both U.S. courts and private arbitration. Owners have maintained that Trump Hotels must leave the property immediately.
In a two-page statement issued Monday afternoon by Trump Organization general counsel Alan Garten, Trump Hotels accused Fintiklis of duplicity and attempting to take over the hotel "with a rogue private security team." Garten also alleged Fintiklis's efforts to cancel Trump's management deal violated the terms of his fund's purchase of 202 out of the 369 hotel units last year.
The Trump statement further suggested that Fintiklis had given up on arbitration because he could not afford a protracted fight.
"Sadly, it now appears as though Mr. Fintiklis has either lost patience with the pace of the proceedings which he commenced or simply lacks the financial backing he once claimed he had," the statement said.
The current fight over the property began on Thursday when Fintiklis attempted to hand-deliver termination notices to four of Trump's top managers at the hotel.
Trump's staff rebuffed the attempt. The Trump Organization called the police, and key staff holed up in a security room. Allies of the owners' association shut off power to the room — inadvertently killing the hotel's phone lines and internet connections, which were routed through servers located in the same space.
In his statement, Garten blamed Fintiklis and an ally in the building for the shut-off of the computers, which he said placed "employees and guests in danger."
According to a legal claim filed by Fintiklis on Friday night, Trump Hotel managers were shredding business records, which Garten said was "categorically untrue."
The bitter dispute simmered through the weekend, with the Trump Organization dispatching one of its top hotel executives, Jeff Wagoner, and other U.S.-based staff to Panama City to rebuff the owners' push. The Trump team has also relied on a bolstered security staff to remain in control of the hotel.
Both sides acknowledged that armed security guards hired by Trump's executives were on the scene.
"There's always security in the hotel," Garten said. "Right now, there's more security."
While Trump retains control of the property, Fintiklis has been working to take over the hotel's bank accounts on behalf of the owners' association. On Sunday, he emailed hotel employees a copy of a government notice stating that he is the president of a key hotel legal entity.
"I am your employer under the laws of Panama," Fintiklis wrote to hotel employees in a letter Sunday. "The Trump Organization, to gain financial and strategic advantage against me and the owners I represent, has been lying to you and putting your jobs and the hotel at grave risk."
Fintiklis did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Trump Hotel executives have told employees not to obey orders from Finktilis.
"To our amazing staff, we thank for your extraordinary dedication. Rest assured, we will continue to stand by and support you — just as you have supported us — during this challenging time."
The Panama hotel is one of 12 remaining in Trump's hotel portfolio. Since the president took office, hotels in Toronto and New York have reached deals to remove his name and management team from their properties. In the case of the former Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan, the property's owners paid to undo Trump's licensing and management deal.
The involvement of a Panamanian government ministry adds a new wrinkle to the dispute. The government's statement says it will request information from foreign entities and governments, "should they be needed" for its investigation.
Panama's government receives financial support for counter-narcotics work from the United States, but has not been a major recipient of aid from the U.S. in recent years. Panama is currently seeking to extradite its former president, Ricardo Martinelli, from the United States to face espionage and embezzlement charges.
Horwitz reported from Washington.